Whether you know it or not, you face two sets of constraints on your ability to be productive and successful: One comes from the external limits imposed on you by society, your job, your family and friends, your circumstances, your resources, unavailable opportunities, and all the rest.
The other comes from the limits you place on yourself.
Both are important. But for most us, it’s the internal limits that are far more powerful, and far more difficult to overcome in our work and our life. For these reasons, they’re worth more of our attention than we often give them.
Here are some ideas on how to recognize the limits you place on yourself, and how to expand them judiciously.
Where Are Your Limits?
As with most situations you’d like to improve, the first step in expanding your internally-imposed limits is recognizing what they are.
There are many ways to do this. Here’s a good one:
- Look at other people’s behavior. Normally, comparisons to others can be harmful. But in this case, you’re not judging yourself against others. You’re simply noticing what some other people do.
- Consider whether or not you’d do the same things.
- Whether you’d do it or not, for each behavior consider your motivation.
Your behaviors generally fall into one of four categories:
- Things you like to do, and you do them.
- Things you don’t like to do, and you don’t do them.
- Things you like to do, and you don’t do them.
- Things you don’t like to do, and you do them.
The first two categories don’t concern us in this discussion. The second two are indications of where you may want to adjust your internally-imposed limits.
What’s Stopping You?
There are many reasons a person will self-impose limits on their behavior. In many cases, they boil down to fear, shame, and timidity.
Fear: All of us are afraid of many things, both sensible and not-so-sensible. You can often make adjustments to what you fear, provided you want to. One of the big problems, however, is that we grow accustomed to our fears and cling to them. Getting ready to adjust what you’re afraid of is beyond the scope of this article. But when you’re ready, you can overcome a great many not-so-sensible fears by such means as:
- Behavioral modification
- Talking about your fears
- Practicing the behavior you fear
Shame: All of us are ashamed of many things. We don’t want to feel embarrassed, humiliated, evil, wrong, or worthless, and so we limit our behavior to avoid these feelings. Shame is a complex phenomenon that has some good as well as bad aspects. Perhaps the biggest problem with shame is that it can drive self-imposed limits that are way too restrictive and hamper our well-being, as well as our productivity and success.
As with fear, overcoming inappropriate feelings of shame depends first on your desire to do this.
Once you feel ready, you can reduce or eliminate some of your shame in selected areas of behavior by openly exploring your feelings (in a journal, for example; you don’t have to share this with others) and then by accepting rather than hiding what you discover about yourself. As with most of the “darker” emotions, bringing shame into the light of your awareness and acceptance greatly reduces its power to limit your behavior.
Timidity: Assuming you have reduced the power of fear and shame to limit your productive and success-oriented behavior, expanding your self-imposed limits becomes a simple exercise of overcoming any timidity you may feel.
I work on this in myself by gradually attempting new things, slowly, step-by-step. I bolster my courage to try a new behavior by:
- Developing a detailed plan of how to proceed in gradual steps.
- Providing back-up and contingency support (which may include friends, experts, instructional materials, safe simulations, and so forth) in case my early efforts disappoint me.
- Tracking my progress as I become more comfortable with and adept at the new behavior.
- Allowing plenty of recovery and preparation time between my efforts.
- Celebrating each small success.
This doesn’t make me a roaring lion or an eager warrior. There are plenty of behaviors I still won’t attempt.
But over the years, I have greatly expanded my self-imposed limits and – perhaps even more important – grown used to the feelings of fear, shame, and timidity that often accompany my wobbly efforts to do something for the first time.
It’s a process I have come to accept and even enjoy, both emotionally and intellectually, as I steadily expand my self-imposed limits on my productive and successful behaviors in my work and my life.
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